The difference between instant and ground coffee is where coffee terminology turns out to be not just handy, but essential.
Because while they’re both coffee, there are differences—and they boil down to more than just the bag versus the jar.
What’s Instant Coffee?
For starters, instant coffee is coffee, period. Instant coffee is derived from brewed coffee beans, it’s what happens to that coffee before it gets to the shelf that’s the difference between instant coffee and brewed coffee from grounds.
How is Instant Coffee Made?
Instant coffee is made from coffee beans, usually of a low-quality Robusta variety, that are roasted to taste and then finely ground into an almost powder-like form. Then, they’re stripped of their water content through brewing, leaving behind an extract. This dehydration process leads into a scientific drying process, to put it mildly, usually conducted by freezing or spraying with liquid coffee concentrate in a very hot environment.
This results in crystallized coffee grounds. Those granules are treated again to remove any remaining water and preserve the flavor of the coffee, readying them for packaging and a space on your shelf.
This is a process that’s been ongoing since chemist Satori Kato invented it more than a century ago.
Is Instant Coffee Better Than Ground Coffee?
It’s easy to imagine more than a few elements of a coffee bean getting lost in all the steps to instant-coffee packaging. And that would be an accurate assumption.
Coffee, in the process of drying and freezing, loses some of the oils that gives standard coffee grounds their flavor in the brewing process. Coffee grounds also retain more of the caffeine content, which also impacts flavor. (Though, notably, Robusta beans are higher in caffeine content—another reason they’re often selected to counter any caffeine lost in the instant-coffee-making process.)
There’s also the possibility that instant coffee retains fewer antioxidants, but that’s been difficult for science to suss out. Instant coffee vs ground coffee is more about flavor.
If you have a recipe that calls for coffee, however, reach for the instant variety. With a punchy, straightforward flavor and the ability to keep well for an extended period of time, instant coffee is perfectly suited for baking. Others use it for convenient—if not exactly high-quality—iced coffees and cold brews that are less dependent on exceptional coffee beans.
Ground Coffee vs. Instant Coffee Flavor
Instant coffee will, generally, have a similar flavor no matter which variety you opt for. While it still matters whether it’s a dark or light roast, for example, most instant coffees will taste more bitter than the average ground coffee. It also does not go through the same brewing process—with all its flavor-determinant steps—that grounds endure. Consider it a trade-off for convenience.
Coffee grounds, by comparison, have a much higher capacity for pleasant acidity, a wider range of bodies, and more flavor compounds to be extracted. In a sense, it’s the difference between a dark and milk chocolate: one boasts a nearly endless number of flavor possibilities, the other retains some of those flavors but with a twist. Still, both come from the same essential ingredients.
Ground Coffee vs. Instant Coffee Difference: What are the Overall Differences?
The takeaway: instant coffee and ground coffee are both coffee, of all varieties and roasts. But instant coffee is a cup of coffee that’s already been brewed and has been processed and preserved in packaging. Ground coffee is not processed beyond the usual steps of washing and roasting before being packaged and shipped to a coffee shop where it begins its natural deterioration process.
Instant coffee is, by no exaggeration, a nearly instantly available cup of coffee, while ground coffee will take effort to pour and extract the intended flavors, but with a reward for those who can manipulate that brew process just right.
Most importantly: Instant coffee dissolves in water, which means that all-important and thought-out extraction process does not occur.
So, is ground coffee instant coffee? Yes, but also, not at all.